*Editor’s note: This was written before his terrible performance last night. Check the PS for thoughts about that.
Since rejoining the rotation in mid-May Brady Singer has looked like an ace. He’s allowed only three runs in those three starts while striking out 20. Everyone seems prepared to credit his decision to finally throw the changeup as the big difference. But I am a bit more skeptical of that. So I decided to do some digging.
How much different is the changeup?
The most obvious difference when one looks at Baseball Savant is that he’s finally throwing the change a significant amount of the time. He now uses it 10% of the time, a massive boost over the four-ish percent he used it before. However, almost everything else about the pitch is identical to what I noted in that article from last year. The movement is below average for the pitch and very similar to his sinker. The velocity difference has grown by an additional average mile-per-hour, but it’s still not in the range that would usually be considered elite. He’s not getting a lot of swings and misses on the pitch and while he’s kept it to a .267 weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) the xwOBA is an unsightly .501. This suggests he’s been very lucky not to get completely beaten up on the pitch.
Essentially, it seems very unlikely that the changeup is the sole - or even a primary - cause of his sudden improvement. For that, we have to look elsewhere.
So if it’s not his changeup then...what is it?
After looking at the changeup it made sense to check in on his other pitches and suffice to say, there has been a renaissance on both his sinker and his slider. Both pitches are coming in harder and moving more than they were last season. In fact, they’ve returned to the form that he displayed while pitching for the team in 2020. He’d lost a lot of movement on both pitches last season. The sinker still has below average movement on both axes, but something about the movement at its current level combined with his delivery offers him excellent deception with the pitch as we’ve seen him get a rather impressive number of called strikes with it. In fact, more than one-third of his sinkers end up as called strikes. That’s a testament to how well he’s deceived batters with the pitch. It could be simply that he’s using it less often. He’s replaced some with changeups, sure, but he’s also throwing more sliders. I can’t say for sure how all of these things are combining to make him more effective, but they are definitely variables to keep an eye on.
However, that’s not his biggest improvement.
The pitcher’s best friend
No, I’m not talking about double plays. I’m talking about their real best friend. The one that’s available for every at-bat: strike one. Since rejoining the rotation, Singer has a first-pitch strike rate of 63% according to FanGraphs. That’s a massive improvement over last year’s 55.8% and a reasonable improvement over his rookie campaign’s 60.5%. He isn’t just throwing more strikes with the first pitch, though. In his three starts so far this year he’s walked only three batters. He’s throwing 48.6% of his pitches in the zone compared to last year’s 43.4% and 2020’s 42.6%. The best part is that he isn’t throwing a lot more meatballs and, interestingly, batters are far less likely to swing at the meatballs than before. That goes back to the deception stuff I mentioned earlier. If a batter is unsure they’re more likely to let a hittable pitch get by them.
His walk rate this year, as a starter, is 1.37 per 9 innings. Each of the last two years that number was over three. The short answer to the question we’ve been asking is, “He’s throwing more quality strikes.”
Is it maintainable?
That’s the million-dollar question. You would think that now that Brady has found this level of command, he’d be able to maintain it and succeed. But it’s worth noting that he made a similar improvement over the course of 2020. While it’s disappointing to see that he’s found it and lost it before, it’s also promising that after losing it he found it again, suggesting he can make adjustments to find his top form. The results also suggest that his top form - with or without the changeup - is good enough to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. But if the Royals want to get the best out of him they might need to add someone to the team whose job it is to help Singer get the most out of what he’s got. That someone could probably even be responsible for helping all of the pitchers get the most out of their talents. I don’t know if the Royals would be willing to consider such a revolutionary kind of coach for pitching (we can workshop the name, I’m not married to it), but they really ought to consider it.
P.S. Obviously, I wrote this before last night’s game which did not go well for our hero. Is this a sign of things to come? Maybe! We are dealing exclusively in small sample sizes here. Two things to note just from checking box scores are that he did not get as many called strikes on his fastball and he did not throw nearly as many sliders as he had been, this year. I expect the two things are connected. If his slider wasn’t working, the changeup still isn’t and may never be enough to keep them from keying in on the fastball. Whenever a pitcher is reduced to one effective pitch it’s unlikely to go well for him barring extreme circumstances. I may be reading too much into it, but I can’t help but feel that there is more causation than simple correlation between his time away from Omaha pitching coach Dane Johnson and his worsening performance.